First impressions deceiving in 'Casa Blue' at American Stage

The unusual structure of a play about eccentric artist Frida Kahlo is as difficult to grasp as her surreal paintings.

Published July 20, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG - The title, Casa Blue: The Last Moments in the Life of Frida Kahlo, implies a drama based on the life of the Mexican artist made memorable by her marriage to Diego Rivera, her own surreal paintings, her broken body (due to a streetcar accident when she was 18), and those eyebrows.

But this play, receiving its world premiere at American Stage, more closely resembles a peyote hallucination guided by the spirit of a self-absorbed woman frantically trying to mythologize her physical suffering, her emotional turmoil and her modest artistic output.

The play, a collaboration by Jeremy Childs, Karen Garcia (who plays one of the four Fridas in the cast), and American Stage artistic director Todd Olson, begins with Kahlo at age 47 (played by Seva Anthony) on her deathbed, preparing to inject herself with a lethal dose of painkiller. She interacts briefly with three other Fridas, at 18, 25 and 33 (played by Gina Rodriguez, Jen Anaya and Garcia, respectively), and then launches into a review of her life.

This long flashback runs into the problem that bedevils every dramatic biography. The story must include certain historical facts, since it is based on the life of an actual person, but those facts must be shaped into a story that depicts the central character engaged in some sort of struggle. Thus, a dramatic biography can be dramatic, or a biography, but seldom both.

The authors get around this problem by presenting Kahlo's life as a series of surreal vignettes. For example, her storied infidelities with Leon Trotsky, sculptor Isamu Noguchi, art dealer Heinz Berggruen, and artist Georgia O'Keeffe are presented as a silent film in which her lovers, portrayed by two of the Fridas wearing masks, make their entrance and then dive under the bed when Frida's jealous husband (portrayed by another Frida in a Diego Rivera mask) pounds on the door, trying to catch his wife in flagrante delicto.

The juxtaposition of such scenes presents Kahlo's life in a "very Frida way," according to a program note by director Olson. Frida, he says, was "a surrealist who considered herself a realist, a Catholic who never went to church, a Communist who craved money, and an unambitious artist who obsessed about her legacy." So to capture these contradictions, he and his co-authors created a mosaic, "a picture made of broken things," that defies any attempt to fashion a coherent, linear narrative out of Kahlo's life.

This is an ingenious approach to Kahlo's complex personality, and Olson masterfully directs this exceptionally ambitious production, which is stuffed with complex sound and lighting cues, as well as the occasional appearance of marionettes that descend into the action.

But unlike a mosaic, this assemblage of "broken parts" never coalesces into a coherent, much less a moving, portrait of the woman. Most scenes lack dramatic conflict and devolve into an eccentric depiction of biographical facts.

As a result, this biodrama, like so many of Kahlo's self-portraits, is startling at first glance, but ultimately one-dimensional, offering primarily weirdness for its own sake rather than insight.

If you go

Casa Blue

Subtitled The Last Moments in the Life of Frida Kahlo, through Aug. 20, American Stage, 211 Third St. S, St. Petersburg. $22-$35. 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, and 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Matinees at 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. (727) 823-7529; www.americanstage.org.